Chiffon scarf trapped in the mechanism, in one moment and out the next, always new and never seen before, learning disability in general audience-facing theatre is stuck in debut mode.
Watching Imogen Roberts, Dean Hallisey and Stephanie Newman, all actors trained and supported by Access All Areas theatre in Hackney, interviewed on Channel 4 this week promoting JOY, the production they’re opening at Stratford East Theatre, you’d be forgiven for believing that actors with learning disabilities and/or autism have never appeared in mainstream drama before. The edit of the actors’ interview with Cathy Newman articulated the ‘ground-breaking’ nature of their engagement to a mainstream text based production alongside an emphasis of the actor’s outsider experience and difficulties with bullying and depression.
Lisa Evans ONCE WE WERE MOTHERS, directed by Gwenda Hughes at the New Vic Stoke at the turn of the millennium featured an early central role from Sarah Gordy (Call The Midwife and other leading TV and film roles), Mind The Gap toured Tim Wheelers’ productions OF MICE AND MEN and a raft of text based integrated work to general audiences over a span of two decades, with Dark Horse I wrote, directed and toured HYPOTHERMIA and SING SOMETHING SIMPLE on the mid scale across the UK and Hijinx recently took MEET FRED out nationally with an integrated cast to great success.
Many learning disability theatre focused companies including Access All Areas (who trained the actors in the Channel 4 interview on their course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and Dark Horse who train actors who want to work professionally have successfully supported actors with learning disabilities to step into general audience facing theatre work for some considerable time.
A growing canon of narrative drama exists alongside the handful of accomplished companies and producers championing the development of integrated theatre featuring vocational learning disabled actors.
In fact, contradicting a message from the interview, there’s never been greater opportunity for exceptional learning-disabled actors thanks to the drive of many initiatives, casters and influencers.
That’s not to say there couldn’t and shouldn’t be a whole lot more done to redress the lack of representation but suggesting that progress hasn’t been made at all in training or employment may stall recognition for actors currently doing great work and building CV’s.
In theatre, the readily communicable learning disability ‘coming out’ fairy tale is attractive and has a tendency to parade itself into the foreground, in spite of its sketchy veracity.
Is this why every new theatre production with actors with learning disabilities in the cast is flagged as ground-breaking and why its necessary to forget the history of a small but influential group of companies, directors, playwrights and venues? Some significant pieces of integrated theatre work have been produced over the past thirty years.
Its great that JOY is happening and writer Stephanie Martin, director Melanie Fullbrook and the programmers at Stratford East are to be wholeheartedly congratulated, but isn’t it the case that outside of commercial theatre general audiences are as likely to be attracted by a new take on a story or a brilliant piece of drama as they are by the constituency of the actors in the cast?
Maybe success will equal the day when learning disabled actors cease to be promoted as inspirational success stories (with tough back stories) and instead the work is sold as artistically excellent and as part of a training discipline and artistic continuum that feeds into a bigger ‘whole’, the work itself.